Joe Henry is perhaps best known and loved for his work behind the glass. He’s been a champion of neglected soul singers, producing brilliant comeback albums by the likes of Solomon Burke and Bettye Lavette, as well as the deeply moving (yet joyful) Katrina benefit I Believe to My Soul, featuring Mavis Staples, Lavette, and New Orleans greats Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and others. Henry was also a co-producer of Elvis Costello and Toussaint’s post-Katrina epic The River in Reverse. So, it’s not surprising that a producer with such impeccable taste and musical passion would create wonderful albums of his own. Civilians is Henry’s second release for Anti. It’s a singer/songwriter type of effort in that these are original songs by a solo artist, but Henry’s musical sense is clearly just as powerful as his penetrating lyrics. There’s a Tom Waits-esque vibe to songs like the title track, in which Henry’s voice echoes as if in an empty room, and the guitar sounds are rhythmic and sometimes dissonant. On “I Will Write My Book,” Henry’s off-beat singing and a low hint of organ undercut lounge-y piano stylings. In his work with soul singers, Henry adds an edge that brings his faithful productions into the present. On his own CDs, Henry’s respect for American musical traditions is still clear; it’s just bent. Guest musicians on the album include eclectic guitarist Bill Frisell and multitasker Van Dyke Parks—no wonder this album is so cool.
LISTEN: Must Play
Producer: Joe Henry. Engineer: Ryan Freeland. Studio: The Garfield House (South Pasadena, Calif.). Mastering: Gavin Lurssen/Lurssen Mastering (Hollywood).